Art for the Masses

Photo by Ken HowardAn international hit performed in more than 20 languages, Yasmina Reza's comedy Art—in which the purchase of a white-on-white painting wreaks havoc among three friends—is one of those rare theatrical birds: a sure thing.

It's easy to see why. It's short: 80 minutes. It's funny. It sounds just smart enough to appeal to the intellectually inclined while its story of a friendship on the rocks is easily digestible for the rank and file.

Too bad it's as disappointing and ultimately irrelevant as a presidential debate.

Like the contentious work of modern art at its center, Reza's admittedly entertaining and likable play is a blank canvas that ultimately takes no stand. While letting individual audience members take what they will from a piece could and does work in certain circumstances, Reza's play doesn't lend itself to such discourse. The resolution she provides is too tidy, the conflict too neutered, and the passions of her characters too easily dismissed.

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The play's intellectual deficiencies were evident in last year's Los Angeles premiere. In this current South Coast Repertory production, those flaws are accentuated by director Mark Rucker's lighter-than-air staging. By focusing almost all of his attention on the relationship among the three friends, Rucker makes these characters more sympathetic but renders the play's intellectual freight nearly weightless.

The result is that the main conflict upon which this play is built—art for art's sake or art as enduring testament of humanity's quest for meaning—is compromised in favor of a far more pedestrian story about an endangered friendship. It's an okay-told tale, but it's much less provocative and challenging than an examination of popular culture and artistic concepts and what each of those says about Us.

Plotwise, Art is very simple. Serge (Stephen Markle), a modern-art enthusiast, buys a white-on-white painting by a fashionable artist for the ungodly sum of 200,000 francs (roughly $30,000). His friend Marc (John de Lancie), who favors more classically inclined representational art, thinks Serge has lost his mind. Marc has long viewed Serge as his apprentice in matters of taste and culture; he decides that Serge's investment in this "white piece of shit" is proof that his once-faithful protg has been duped by the modern-art establishment.

In the middle is Yuan (a sincere and troubled Steven Culp), a nice guy with no artistic taste and no pretense of acquiring it; he just wants to be Serge's and Marc's friend. Instead, he finds himself the punching bag in the verbal battle between his older, more erudite compatriots.

Reza takes a weighty subject like modern art and makes it accessible. Rucker's energetic pacing and his three actors, who seem to approach their roles with tongues firmly in cheek, make things more audience-friendly. But strangely, it's the very accessibility of this production that makes it so disappointing.

Reza does raise the question of whether there is any significance, meaning or value to a painting that is, basically, nothing. By extension, modern art and so many of its tributaries—minimalism, conceptualism, postmodernism and deconstructionism —are called into question. But seldom does her play make us feel that the question is important, and this production further lessens that question's impact. This Art doesn't try to answer whether the emperor's wearing any clothes—and it makes the question seem irrelevant.

Art at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 19. $18-$49.

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